When Greta Thunberg at age 16 spoke at the United Nations and made a global impact for environmental concerns, what paved the way for her was not just her passionate determination. Growing up she found confidence, connections, encouragement, and backing. But not every child is lucky to have such an enabling background.
Could we build a system similarly enabling every child to make a significant contribution to the solution of local or global problems—especially the environment-related ones? Could we also ensure a process whereby children leave schools not merely as academically qualified but as proactively contributing citizens and leaders empowered enough to ensure a sustainably developed world?
So-called Inclusive Neighborhood Children's Parliaments (INCPs) in India are doing just that. What are they? What measures do INCPs employ that enable every child to grow up to be a proactive citizen and effective leader?
Started in 1990s in the southernmost district of India, Kanyakumari, INCPs today are a bottom-up global movement that starts from neighborhood-level parliaments and reaches up to a Provisional World Children’s Parliament.
Small-sized, Inclusive, and Neighborhood-based
At the base, INCPs are units of about 30 children each, geographically and inclusively organized—every child in each neighborhood is reached out to and included. INCP units are kept deliberately small: the child parliament should be small enough that everybody can sit in one circle face-to-face and talk without a microphone. In such small forums, unlike in huge forums, every child gets attention and recognition, and has ample opportunity to be heard, to interact, to perform, and to lead.
INCPs are organized in residential neighborhoods. Lately schools joined in. The school parliaments are, preferably, not based on the children’s courses, but on the geographic neighborhood children come from. Children respond more easily to persons, situations, needs, and problems in their neighborhoods. Also, a neighborhood-linked process continues even after the children complete their studies in school and go home. This enables them to continue to interact with their neighbors and together keep on contributing for the common good in their neighborhoods and beyond.
The entire process is child-led. Each INCP does have an adult mentor, though not functioning as a “teacher” but assisting the children in finding their own solutions—he or she sits with the children in the circle or even behind the circle. Child parliamentarians at the neighborhood level meet every other week for an hour or so. The intervening week meetings are for the various ministries led by so-called child ministers.
Child Leaders Aplenty
Each INCP has its child leaders called “ministers” focusing on various concerns like health, education, child rights, and gender sensitivity. The child ministers—American children unused to “minister” might prefer terms like “secretary” and “director”—alert other child parliamentarians regarding issues related to their ministries and motivate them for action responses. Almost every child is made a minister. Assigning a child to be a minister is a great strategy to groom him or her to be a proactive leader. 17 of these ministries are for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN.
For example, if a girl becomes a minister for the environment, she is expected to report about the environment during the next parliament meeting. This would spur her to read about it, investigate, and listen to others on possible activities that the children’s parliament could initiate, and so forth. Over time she will become an expert, and a knowledgeable leader. When every child in a circle of 30 ministers in the child parliament focuses on a separate concern, each child gets a multi-sided awareness of social, environmental, and other issues affecting the world.
Engaging children to have a wider and deeper awareness through a collective process is a core component of the INCP’s approach for creating action-leaders. Leaders are to know the way, go the way, and show the way. They observe, judge, and act. When children in groups understand together, evaluate together, and act together, their perspectives get mutually corrected, their views become more complete and objective, a value clarification process automatically takes place, and they become effective team workers and leaders.
Actions for the Environment
Child parliaments using this method have led campaigns for tree-planting, plastic-reduction, reduction of fossil energy, promotion of solar energy, recycling programs, and so forth. They have dug soak-pits ensuring both the recharging of ground water, and cleanliness of the village, avoiding water-stagnation and dengue-spreading mosquitoes.
In another example, they joined the global movement of eco-brick making. First, they informed the houses in the neighborhood they would collect their single-use plastics like plastic bags. After they collected the single-use plastics, they filled them in the PET bottles they had already collected previously and packed them to the high density that becomes like a brick. Then these eco-bricks are ready to be used for making various building modules.
Kovalam, a village in the southernmost part of India, received the national presidential award for cleanliness, due to the efforts of child parliamentarians. In New Delhi, child parliamentarians decided to use bicycles for distances up to three kilometers, and to opt for traveling by public buses for longer distances. When they have parliament sessions at state and national levels they invite or meet government leaders and submit memoranda alerting them on various environmental issues.
Child parliamentarians also advocate for the environment through songs, drama skits, native dances, poems, rallies, exhibitions, and more to create awareness on environmental concerns, bringing to the process fun, color, and creativity.
Building a Sustainable World
INCPs can handle multiple concerns at the same time with wide impacts by electing ministers for specific concerns. For environmental concerns, they select a child minister for environment in each neighborhood parliament of children. These neighborhood level ministers join at the village level to form a child ministry for environment, and they will in turn form such environment ministries at sub-district, district, state, nation, international, and global levels.
This helps child parliamentarians to advocate for sustainable growth at ever wider levels as they keep growing in confidence and competence.
Swarnalakshmi Ravi, a visually challenged girl, was just 12 years old when she joined a children's parliament in Chennai, India, in 2002. The very next year she became the Child Prime Minister of the State Parliament of Children of Tamilnadu, India, and addressed meetings at the UN headquarters in New York. Later, as national child prime minister she would advocate for Sustainable Development Goals, submitting memoranda to national government leaders.
Presently, she serves as a convenor for the PWCP.
Jayalaxmi Ram Mohan, 18, joins her parents, her brother, and her sister in garbage collecting every day from 4 am to 12 noon. Afterward, she goes to her studies as a 12th grader. Four years ago, she joined the children’s parliament in the Singareny Colony slum, eventually became the prime minister of that parliament, and still later, the child prime minister of Hyderabad City parliament. Jayalaxmi led a team of child parliamentarians to submit memoranda to the Special Secretary for Women Development and Child Welfare of Telangana State, India, requesting that day care centers for poor children in slums provide also free breakfast every morning. It was approved.
She met the governor of Telangana State in India and submitted a request to ensure that children’s parliaments are started in all schools, beginning with the state-run ones. Her various involvements earned her the ChangeMaker award given to just 15 persons a year in a nation of 1.4 billion people. She was also one of eight persons specially honored at the Women’s Day celebration 2022 at the Telangana State governor’s palace. In March 2022, she was elected the Prime Minister of the Provisional World Parliament of Children.
Children of the Inclusive National Children’s Climate Parliament interacted with M. Venkaiah Naidu, the Vice-President of India, and Smriti Zubin Irani, Union Minister of India for Women and Child Development, and the Chair of the Parliamentary Group for Children, as well as with members of parliament from various Indian states.
The child parliament ministers for the environment at various levels are not to work in isolation, but to coordinate their activities with other similar, neighborhood-based global multi-tier child- ministers for concerns like human rights, women’s empowerment, health, sports, education, and so forth. What a wonderful thing to have such a bottom-to-top child-led federation for the environment working together with similar organizations for related concerns.
Local INCP select representatives forming a second-level, larger area parliament who in turn elect representatives to form third-level, even larger area parliaments. By electing local representatives to the next wider area level, children’s parliaments are in the process to function at sub-district, district, state, nation, international, and global levels.
Every two weeks the Provisional World Children’s Parliament (PWCP) brings together online child parliamentarians from five continents with focus on SDGs. It is “provisional” as many countries are yet to join in this representative process from below. This global connectedness aims to fight the feeling of helplessness that often cripples the enthusiasm of children wanting to effect changes. Children would now feel that what they say from one corner of the world would echo in every corner of the world—they have a global voice.
Members of Neighborhood parliaments are prepared to become later members of youth parliament and neighborhood parliaments of the adults. Thus, they are set to usher in gradually a multi-level federation of neighborhood parliaments of adults. This will lead to a world organized from below. It will ensure a powerful ongoing voice and structure for all people, but especially for those at the socio-economic base and those affected by the environmentally destructive decisions of the big and the powerful. Children and adults from every corner of the world will fight together effectively for a sustainable world. Could the earth-lovers ask for more?
*Edwin Maria John, 77, is the author of the book, Hello, Neighbourocracy! which presents the blueprint for a new political, economic and social world order. He has nearly fifty years of experience in organizing neighborhood-based, small-sized forums for children and grown-ups, and federating them at various levels. He promotes Inclusive Neighborhood Children’s Parliaments, Neighborhood Parliaments of People, Marketing from Below and Governance from Below. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.